Booked Out

10 December 2013 Chris Flynn

Booked Out

Photograph of Chris Flynn by Brad Dunn

Chris Flynn, Ed#446, November 2013

Author and formerly voracious reader Chris Flynn takes a year-long break from books, and starts to lose the literary plot.

In 2010, I started making a list of the books I was reading. I’ve always been fond of list making, although I’d cut back in recent years because it was all getting a little bit silly. Buy jam. Do washing. Check mail. I’ve always been a voracious reader, too, ever since I was old enough to stride boldly into the adult section of the library and flick confidently through the latest James Herbert novel, hoping to find a rude bit.

I had never before kept track of what I was reading though, but armed with an Excel spreadsheet I sallied forth. In 2010, I read 98 titles, mostly fiction, with a couple of doorstops in there (Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Justin Cronin’s The Passage, Brady Udall’s thousand-pager The Lonely Polygamist).

If this sounds like a lot, it’s worth bearing in mind that I was making my living from reviewing books at the time, and was soon to become books editor at The Big Issue. Still, 98 books in a year is ridiculous, I admit.

The following year I stormed through a slightly disappointing 95 titles, the heftiest of which was Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84. In 2012, my numbers trailed off badly, as I only managed 74.

This year I have read nothing.

Zero.

Zip.

Admittedly, I have been writing a book of my own, but that’s a poor excuse. Writers are always banging on about how important it is to read, read, read. This is pretty good advice. If you’re going to sit down and make the effort to add to the tens of thousands of titles that come out every year, it’s probably wise to be aware, at least in a general sense, of what your contemporaries are doing, and take care that you’re not flogging a horse that is dead, buried, been dug up, hit in the face with a shovel and thrown off a cliff, hitting every sharp rock on the way down. (Vampire fiction, anyone?)

However. In reading contemporary fiction so intensely over a few short years, I began to notice patterns forming – similarities in plot lines, characters that seemed a little too familiar, and in some cases stories that were all but identical to ones I’d already read. This is the danger in reading too much. Experts would have us believe there are only seven types of story that exist, and that every book you read or film you watch slots into one of these categories. I was vaguely aware of this factoid, and always viewed it with skepticism, but it was only after I powered through 267 books in three years that the uncomfortable truth of it began to sink in. Here, then, are those seven supposed types of story.

THE QUEST: Hero sets out to look for some usually magical thingamajig, accompanied by a disposable bunch of friends. Lord of the Rings is a solid example, but quest narratives pop up in almost everything.

RAGS TO RICHES: More commonly featuring a female protagonist, in which she overcomes tough circumstances to get that promotion or prince she deserves. Cinderella, basically. Harry Potter, too, at least in the early books, although that morphs into…

OVERCOMING THE MONSTER: Evil threatens the land, hero acquires special skills or equipment to give him/her a fighting chance, triumphs against incredible odds. Think Beowulf or The Hunger Games. Or we could look at it from the monster’s point of view in…

TRAGEDY: The fall of a villain whom we feel sorry for, and actually kind of like. Macbeth is the classic here, although Breaking Bad’s Walter White may be the one to knock the mad King from his perch.

COMEDY: Pretty self-explanatory, but most often features a group of friends who become involved in a madcap jaunt born out of some romantic miscommunication. Hollywood churns out wedding-based comedies like this at the rate of about six thousand a year, it seems, though Shakespeare thought of them first – see Much Ado About Nothing and A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

REBIRTH: Also popular with Hollywood these days, as it fits nicely into the superhero sequel genre – hero is defeated due to complacency or overconfidence, goes away to learn what really matters, returns stronger and better to win out in the end, before possibly hanging up his cape. Iron Man 3 and The Dark Knight Rises are eerily similar in this respect. It’s a powerful narrative device, which is why we still read A Christmas Carol and love Star Wars.

VOYAGE AND RETURN: Similar to quest and rebirth, this time it’s a naive young whippersnapper who travels to some strange land, undergoes a few nasty moments and learns something about herself before coming of age and returning home a little wiser. See Alice in Wonderland, the Narnia books, Gulliver’s Travels.

There will always be stories that buck the trend and defy classification, but it’s surprising how often the above plots are recycled. Or maybe it’s not. Maybe we’ll never tire of endless variations of Jane Eyre or The Hobbit.

One thing that became painfully apparent to me after absorbing those 267 books in 36 months was that I was sick to the back teeth of reading the same stories over and over again. It didn’t matter how well written they were, in the end. I needed to make a clean break and live in the real world for a while, where the only comedy at weddings is to be found in watching drunk relatives dance and the only ring everyone’s searching for is resting snugly in the best man’s waistcoat pocket.

I hesitate to say my life was more boring without books but I did quickly realise that there was an absence of any dramatic arc. Reading so many books had raised the unspoken expectation that my own world should be peppered with pivotal moments of drama. Where was the bleak yet poignant family life bereft of humour I had seen portrayed in so many novels? Where was the conflict with my long-lost brother returned from the war? Why wasn’t I married to his wife, who thought he was dead? Surely a gorgeous punk hacker detective chick on a motorcycle should have picked me up from the bus stop by now? And why were no orcs trying to kill me? Are they retired? Has the orc union got them on strike for better pay and conditions?

It was clear I had become hooked on drama, on quests, on monster and tragedy and rebirth stories, none of which featured in my humdrum life. The next problem was trying not to invent them. Drama queen alert – you know that person in your life who constantly blows everything out of proportion, makes mountains from molehills and generally does your head in? That was me, for a while, until I found Game of Thrones as an outlet. It’s drama replacement therapy. I now have all the backstabbing and decapitations I need. My real life has returned to normal. Thank you, George RR Martin, and by the way, get on with it!

Becoming a drama queen after giving up reading for a year was a problem, but a remedy was available. There were other, more worrying issues that popped up, ones that could not be repaired, I believe, by anything other than books.

I felt stupider. And I began to talk less good.

Fiction is fact-checked by discerning editors and one of the aspects of storytelling I’ve always enjoyed is fiction’s ability to teach me things, in a fun and easy to digest way. Textbooks bored me to tears and when my History teacher droned on about Ancient Rome, I invariably tuned out. Tell me about a serial killer prowling the streets of Vesuvius though, and I’m hanging on every detail. He used a curved-blade knife more usually associated with goat sacrifice, you say? Interesting.

In the absence of these juicy snippets of knowledge slipped into fiction, I had to rely on the news, which seems to be more preoccupied with the Kardashians than Emperor Romulus. Without books, my IQ dropped so sharply I almost lost consciousness. I also lost the ability to speak in sentences, resorting instead to a series of grunts, whaaas, yerps, likes and or somethings. Or something.

If you don’t read, as in if you don’t read at all, you expose yourself to serious health risks. The power to express yourself may be drastically reduced. You may feel the strange need to invent drama in your life, causing trouble for your friends and family. And most ironic of all, if you don’t lose yourself in made-up stories, you run the risk of never learning anything about the world. A word of caution, though – books must be absorbed in moderation.

Don’t overdo it, like I did, take frequent power naps and keep an eye out for those orcs – they’ll be back.

 

» Chris Flynn is a former Big Issue books editor and the author of two novels, A Tiger in Eden and the forthcoming The Glass Kingdom.

 

Illustrations by Georgia Perry.

Authors